Who’s Who’s Best is Who’s Better?

Who’s Who’s Best is Who’s Better?

The Who

The Ultimate Collection

MCA/Universal

This collection had been in the works for some time before John Entwistle’s untimely death, so I can’t really call its timing an effort to cash in. Nevertheless, the stickers that adorned my copy made me somewhat sad — “As Seen on TV” and “As Heard on the Hit TV Show CSI.” To paraphrase Monty Python, “Oh, what sad times are these when passing ruffians have to resort to television tie-ins to hawk one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time.”

With that caveat aside, I can begin the important process of convincing all of you who don’t have a single Who album in their collection to at least purchase this two-disc set. The Who symbolizes the four-piece rock combo more clearly than any other act I can think of, in several ways.

Let’s start with their musical prowess. Each member stuck to their instrument of choice and defined a style of playing it that was uniquely their own: Roger Daltrey on lead vocals, Peter Townshend on lead guitars, John Entwistle on lead bass and Keith Moon on lead drums. It seems that all the instruments fought to be at the front of the song like kids at the ice-cream truck’s ordering window, but at the same time each is painfully aware of its place in the grand scheme of the song.

The Who pioneered what is now known as The Rock Opera, the next level past The Concept Album. In both Tommy and Quadrophenia, the band not only came up with an engaging and original story, but also penned songs in a variety of styles to support it, and — on top of everything — personally brought it all to life in the subsequent film versions. Though my favorite Tommy moment is still Ann Margaret squirming in a torrent of chocolate and beans, I still can’t get enough of Moon’s turn as a creepy molesting uncle.

Rebellion. Sure, the Stones shocked with their thinly-veiled talk of sexuality, but the Who still have the defining anthem of teenage alienation in “My Generation” — “why don’t you all f-f-ff-fade away” Daltrey stutters, and we all know what he’s saying, just as we know what the asterisks in s**t stand for. Transexuality (“I’m A Boy”), masturbation (“Pictures of Lily”), disposable marriages (“A Legal Matter”), and drugs drugs drugs (“Magic Bus”) are all topics that not only made their way into their songs, but into the charts with deft British double-entendres.

Then there’s the vision. Who’s Next, an album formed of tracks culled from Townshend’s Lifehouse, an abortive Rock Opera follow-up to Tommy, predominantly featured synthesizers, at a time when the instrument was still unknown on pop charts. The unmistakable arpeggiated openings of “Baba O’Reilly” (which most people would come to call “Teenage Wasteland” after its chorus) and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” are still electrifying nearly thirty years later.

And finally, because we’re talking about a band that began its life close to 40 years ago, longevity. Which is nothing without relevance. The band survived the untimely death of Moon, and though the sound was unquestionably changed by Moon’s replacement (Faces drummer Kenney Jones) and the addition of an official keyboard player, “Rabbit” Bundrick, the band still wrote songs that kept up with their in-your-face attitude (“Who Are You”) and ability to write a fine pop hook (“You Better You Bet”).

Whew. The last fifteen years or so of The Who have been occupied mostly by announcing Final Tours, only to make liars of themselves to the delight of fans everywhere. There hasn’t been any new material from the band as a whole, though both Daltrey and Townshend had moderately successful solo careers in the early ’80s. Even before Entwistle’s death a few months ago, literally on the eve of their latest Final Tour Ever (We Mean It This Time), the band seemed to have lost their connection with the latest crop of music consumers. Yet their grip on musicians everywhere is as strong as ever. Any time you see someone destroying their instrument on stage, any time you see someone performing acrobatics with their microphone and stand, any time you hear a bass solo in the middle of a rock song, or any time you hear a song where the drums seem to be an interminable fill rather than a straight-up 4/4, you are seeing The Who. Long live rock.

The Who: www.thewho.net

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